DIVA TALK: Chatting With Porgy and Bess Star NaTasha Yvette Williams

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NaTasha Yvette Williams
NaTasha Yvette Williams

NATASHA YVETTE WILLIAMS
In her second Broadway outing, the beautiful, thoroughly moving and exquisitely sung revival of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, NaTasha Yvette Williams manages to be a standout in a cast of standouts led by Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald and David Alan Grier. Williams, who made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, plays Mariah, the Earth Mother who keeps a watchful eye on all of the goings-on in Catfish Row, in Porgy and Bess, which is helmed by Tony-nominated Hair director Diane Paulus. About her performance, the New York Times said, "Williams gives a warmly detailed interpretation of the maternal, imperious Mariah that helps ground us in the values of Catfish Row," while the Hollywood Reporter said she "serves up ample doses of earthy humor and maternal warmth." Earlier this week, I had the chance to chat with the actress, who sprinkles her conversation with much laughter. Williams, who is new mom to 11-month-old twins Mackenzie Christina Lee and Nile Christopher Lee, spoke about motherhood, her latest Broadway outing and her road from Algebra I teacher to the New York stage; that interview follows.

Question: Tell me, how did you get involved with Porgy and Bess?
NaTasha Yvette Williams: Oh, my goodness! Well, I auditioned… My callback was ten days after my twins were born. [Laughs.] I had twins on March 1.

Question: Congratulations!
Williams: Thank you. And, my little girl was still in the NICU, and I got the call for the callback. And, I was like, "Look, these kids got to eat…," and I actually had my hospital bracelets on. [Laughs.] They let me come in and audition, and I sang, and I went back to the hospital to be with the babies. It was crazy.

Question: Are they fraternal or identical?
Williams: They're fraternal twins—a boy and a girl. They were actually in the show in Cambridge when we did the out-of-town run—they played Clara's baby… But I got involved just by auditioning and going in. I heard that it was coming and wanted to be involved.

Question: What was your familiarity with the opera?
Williams: I just knew that it was a famous opera. I had never seen it, and I knew that I wasn't necessarily a legit singer, so I never really auditioned for it. But when I heard they were trying to make it more musical-theatre-like—musical-theatre-esque—I was like, "This is for me!" Question: There was much in the news about Stephen Sondheim's comments. What were your thoughts about people re-envisioning a classic piece?
Williams: Because I wasn't, and still not really, an opera person—certainly, not an opera purist—I was of the belief that as long as the piece, or whatever it is, is being done, it's a tribute to those who created it. If it wasn't a masterwork, no one would care. We wouldn't want to see it done any kind of way. Not the traditional way or not adding a little spice to it. I'm of the belief that if it is something worthy of doing, why not give it another look or another take, so that we can invite other people to begin to enjoy what those people—the purists or the people who are already familiar with it—have enjoyed. And, [if the idea] is to make an opera a musical theatre piece, that's certainly not taking away from the opera, it's just creating another venue—another avenue—for the piece to survive and to live even longer with another audience.

Question: Tell me a bit about working with Diane Paulus.
Williams: That has been extraordinary for me! We seem to be surrounded by creative people that are so giving and so open… We were in a talkback, and I think it was Audra McDonald who said that Diane just has no ego, so that you are allowed to contribute and create as well. And, she certainly is guiding the ship and pulling things back and pushing things forward, but she is able to do so in a way that your ego is maintained, you're not bruised. Even if what you chose to do was ridiculous—didn't fit in—she can tell you that in a way that allows you to feel free to do something else—to choose something else to do. Working with her has been great… I got hurt, actually, in Cambridge and was able to sit in the audience and sort of watch the rehearsals. I mean, I was saying my lines from my chair, but actually got to see her moving in and out of the seats as she was directing and watching the stage pictures and trying to create things, and it was such a wonderful vantage point for me—just being able to see her, to see what she saw and figure out how I fit into that picture. Because when you're on the stage sometimes, and you're creating and building this piece—this character—you're not able to see what it looks like. But because I sat out for so long with my injury, I'm able to see what the stage looked like and how I fit into that. So, I was able to see a little bit of what Diane sees, and it was just a magnificent process for me, to be able to watch her watch us and then put myself into that as well.

Question: Are you completely healed now?
Williams: I wouldn't say I'm all healed. I have a little dent in my leg. [Laughs.] The original design of the show—there were holes in the stage to give it that weathered-and-worn Catfish Row look, and I actually fell in one of those holes, and it sort of injured me. It doesn't hurt anymore, it's all cosmetic now, I guess. But we're hobbling right along. [Laughs.] A lot of people got their legs hurt, and we're like, "Oh, it's the curse of Porgy!"

 

NaTasha Yvette Williams and David Alan Grier
photo by Michael J. Lutch

Question: How would you describe your character?
Williams: My character is like the Earth Mother of the town or Catfish Row. I'm everybody's auntie, basically, and nobody's auntie. I'm not related to anybody, per se, but I sort of take care—take on the reins—of making sure that everyone is okay in Catfish Row, particularly Porgy—he's like my surrogate son. But I also take on that role with everyone in the community, I think. I've got my hands in a little bit of everything. And, just trying to make sure we maintain a sense of community and maintain Catfish Row.

Question: How much did your role change from the out-of-town tryout to Broadway or did it stay pretty much the same?
Williams: Well, the idea of it certainly stayed pretty much the same. I gained a couple of scenes, actually, that weren't there in Boston. I wasn't doing the Judge Frazier scene in Boston. Because we were experimenting with a bunch of different endings, too, I didn't have the scene… There's a little scene, which is actually one of my favorites, where I come in and take the baby—that wasn't there in Boston… I've lost some lines. I lost stuff, too. [Laughs.] I've gained some things from the Boston tryout. The show, I think, is more cohesive now. It's more streamlined… Certainly, I'm not saying this about the opera. I'm saying from Boston, our show is more focused, if you will. The idea before was that everybody would have a contribution and say something, and it was more spread out. I think moving from Boston to Broadway, Diane felt that we should try to focus it in more. Focus in on Bess and Porgy.

Question: You mentioned one favorite moment. I'm wondering if you have any other favorite moments for your character.
Williams: Well, that one is the big one. I really enjoy that one. Also, there's a moment in the storm where a character, Mingo, and I have right after the storm when we made it through. We say something different to each other every night. And, that's a favorite moment because sometimes he just makes me burst into tears, and other times it makes me angry. So, I look forward to experiencing that every night because it's generally new. I enjoy the franticness of Bess' return to Kittawah—that scene, for the same reason. This show, for me, is really like an acting class—a super-challenge class—because I am with these giants in the theatre world and TV and film with David Alan Grier and Audra and Norm, as well. We're just with these giant people who force you to stay up on your game and challenge you to meet them where they are, and they're giving you these lines, and you're creating scenes together. It's just been a very eye-opening experience for me… Diane sent a note to me some time ago about, "When you say this line, act through it. Really, really act through it." And, in my mind, I thought I was. [Laughs.] In my mind, I thought, "Yeah, I am." But when you really think about it, about what was coming at me and what was given to me, I wasn't… My favorite moments of the show are when I get to listen to other people because that's really when I'm performing or acting or being… Being Mariah is listening, and not necessarily when I'm speaking. That's been a very enjoyable [lesson] for me. I just had to figure that out. [Laughs.]

Question: Has being a new mother affected your performance, especially in the scene where you take the baby?
Williams: Oh, certainly. Certainly. It affects that scene, and because [my twins] used to be in the show, I'm constantly missing moments with them that I had, and sometimes, now, when I pick up the baby, I'm thinking, "Oh, this used to be…" I can connect with that moment a little bit more because it was a live baby, and it was my baby, and when Clara runs off into the storm, I think about a baby not having his mother anymore or having a new mother, and that affects me, too, because it's like, "Wow. What if something happened to me today at their age?" So, I'm constantly relating everything to being this new mother, which has sort of taken over my life. [Laughs.] Certainly, I think it has affected me as a performer greatly, and it just gives me new depth and new heights that I can tap into, hopefully.

 

Bryonha Marie Parham, Norm Lewis and NaTasha Yvette Williams.
photo by Michael J. Lutch

Question: It's such an amazing cast, I wonder what it's like backstage. Is there a sense of family?
Williams: We are incredibly close. And, everybody is so nice. Of course, we have the usual… couple crazy people. [Laughs.] However, even with the crazy people, you love them. I don't know what happened. I know we played this game in the beginning. Diane had us develop these lives, these characters, for the show, which you always do when you're in a production. However, I don't know that you always get the opportunity to share them with everybody. We had a day of actually telling people who we were—who we had decided our characters were going to be and how they related to each person and what they did and their strengths and weaknesses. So, not only did we do that for ourselves, which I think, as actors, we always do when we have a role, but we actually got to hear and listen to everybody else's. What I think that did was certainly define who the people who lived in Catfish Row were, but because they were defined—or more defined—it lets you know how you fit in. It's sort of like me sitting out and watching the show for weeks—"Wow, okay. That person does this. And, I know that when I do that later on, this person has done it before." You know, those kinds of things. It sort of gave us a sense of community that you normally don't get in a four-to-six week rehearsal period because you're just so [focused] to get it up. I think that particular exercise, for us—because it was public—helped us develop ensemble-ness in the community. Certainly, it trickles down and travels outside of the Row. It travels outside of the space from where we're performing. We kind of like each other.

Question: How nerve-racking was that, though, getting up in front of everyone and wondering how people would react?
Williams: It was early, so it was kind of nerve-racking. We had like a week-and-a-half, I guess, to get it together before she announced we were going to do it—"We'll be doing this next week." We had about a week with each other, trying to feel each other out… But it was nerve-racking because say I decide that my character bought the water pump for the town. And, in your private time, you might have thought your character did it. You know what I mean? You're nervous about whether your idea of who you are is really going to fit into this world, and then you just make it work regardless. Say, "Well, we had two pumps. The first one broke down" or whatever the case is… It wasn't as nerve-racking as it was enlightening. It was nerve-racking in that we were just meeting each other and we had to get up and do something, but as far as what we had to do, that wasn't necessarily nerve-racking to me. It was more, "Wow. That's pretty interesting." We learned a lot about people. There's one character, Eva—people in the ensemble gave themselves names—and, while she was very quiet in rehearsal, her character that she developed had this full life and attitude that went along with her personality. And, it was just good to see people opening up and blossoming and really thinking about who they were and the story that they were going to tell—that we were all going to tell. We're all telling Porgy and Bess' story, but we each have a piece and a part and branch of that particular tree. That was just the beauty of that whole exercise, and I know that that's what has made us close with each other, being protective of each other and actually getting along, where we otherwise might have just gone to work and gone home.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, I'm just curious, where were you born and raised?
Williams: I was born in, actually, Rochester, New York, but I lived there for like three months, because the snow came. [Laughs.] And, my family was from North Carolina, and we weren't used to a lot of snow. I was raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I spent about five years in Philly, but North Carolina is my home, really.

Question: When did you start performing?
Williams: Age three! I was singing in the Tiny-Tot Choir at my church. [Laughs.] And, doing little things at church—mostly around three. But, professionally, I guess, around 13, I had my first community theatre show.

 

NaTasha Yvette Willams, Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald
photo by Michael J. Lutch

Question: When did performing change for you from being a hobby to when you knew this is what you wanted to pursue for your career?
Williams: It kind of never was a hobby for me. It was always what I wanted to do; however, I didn't know what that was. Three I started singing, and at five I was watching the "Sonny & Cher Show," the Jacksons had a show, and little Janet was on there. I used to watch Angie Dickinson [in the] "Police Woman" show with my mom, and I knew that I wanted to have families sit down like we were doing and be entertained—laugh and sing. I knew I wanted to do that. I thought that you could only do it on TV, because that was my experience. I was sitting in the living room with my mom watching TV, and I knew that I wanted to do that, and then it turned into, "Well, how can I do that and what do you do?" Then you grow up and you learn, "Oh, there's people doing this live every day," and they don't have to be really skinny or really pretty people—they can be, but they don't have to be—they can look like me or look like everybody because I'm a big girl, so it's like, "Where does that put me in this world of entertainment?" And, theatre was the most receptive to me and I to it, I think. So, I knew at a very young age that I wanted to perform and entertain, and, I guess, high school maybe defined what avenue I'd take.

Question: After high school, what was your path?
Williams: I went to North Carolina A&T State University and had a double major of math and theatre arts… It was going to be math, and then I was in the plays all the time, and I was like, "Okay, the math is slipping, let's make this work for us," so I ended up double majoring. And, I went to grad school at Michigan State University and just got an MFA in acting, and then moved to New York. Actually, I moved back home for a bit, taught high school at Westchester High School.

Question: Did you teach math or performing?
Williams: I taught math. [Laughs.] I taught everything… I taught an Algebra I class, I taught speech and drama. I taught two drama classes. I taught a forensics class, which was the speech and debate team, and I taught something else… Oh, I taught chorus! I had no business teaching music, but I taught that, too. [Laughs.]… Then I moved to New York right after that. I moved to New York in '96-'97, somewhere around there.

Question: What was your Broadway debut?
Williams: My Broadway debut was actually The Color Purple.

Question: What did you do between when you moved to New York and The Color Purple?
Williams: I did all of the Broadway series tours just about. I did Dessa Rose at Lincoln Center, understudying there. I did a couple of things at the Paper Mill. Certainly, I have done a lot of regional theatre, but the bulk of my life has been on the road doing the tours. I did the The Goodbye Girl tour, Xanadu, Drowsy Chaperone tour. I've done just about all of the shows that have a person like me, the tour of them. [Laughs.] Question: When you finally got to Broadway, do you remember your first night? What that was like for you?
Williams: I actually had the blessing and benefit of having two first nights, basically. I went into The Color Purple as the second Sofia—the first replacement for Felicia P. Fields. And, it was an extraordinary night in that I had been trying to get in The Color Purple since it did its world premiere pre-Broadway in Atlanta, and it was constantly just, "Oh, we love you, but not right now." The story of my life. [Laughs.] So, it was an extraordinary night for me—magical like never before. I was nervous, but not nervous—just able to sort of exhale. I had that for my first night. Then, I had another first night when Fantasia came into the show about a month after me. It was like it was opening night, you know. It was like totally the beginning, like what it must have been like for LaChanze when she opened in that there were photographers and all this fanfare and all these people. It was a surreal experience for me that I got to experience, actually, from my first opening night to Fantasia's opening night to my closing night. Certainly, there were less photographers there by the closing night, but that experience of, "Wow. I'm standing on this stage—a stage that I've been trying to get on for ten years, basically." When I moved to New York—it must have been '97 because it was when Ragtime and Livent had all these shows. Ragtime was opening for the first time there… And, that was the first show that I saw when I moved, and it was intermission. I called my mom and was like, "Oh, my God, this is what I so want to do. I know I'm in the right place." Ragtime did that for me—that lifting. Being in the audience now and just watching this show, this music, these pictures unfold, this story onstage—it was all of that for me, to be able to give that to someone, and that was what it was all about for me—opening night and even now. I'm sorry, I'm crying. [Laughs.] But, it's just an amazing career… Certainly, it started with that first night, but it didn't stop there. That was the beauty of it. It didn't stop with the first night. It was every night I got to do it because the audience was new, and that is how I feel now.

Question: How is it combining motherhood and eight shows a week? That's got to be pretty…
Williams: Oh, yeah. That's pretty rough. [Laughs.] I have lots of help, and my husband has been great and wonderful and amazing—most of the time! Especially when we were previewing and having those ten-out-of-twelve days and stuff, that was really hard. The hardest part, now, is that they've started to cry and cling when I leave. And, you know, you are always wondering, "Wow. I'm doing what I love, and I'm doing what is enabling our family to exist, basically, but how much of it is my ego wanting to perform versus being a mom?" It's been difficult, and it's been fun. It was great in Boston or Cambridge because they were with me in the show, so we all left and went to the show together. They left a little earlier to come home, but it wasn't as much of a strain, basically, in terms of time as it is now. But, they've been kind and the kids come, and actually tomorrow we're having a Porgy and Bess play date. All of us are bringing their kids, and we're going to hang out and stuff. I come home at night, and my little girl is generally asleep, my little boy is generally up. [Laughs.] So, I have some time with them and I certainly have time with them during the day, and just do our best to be in their lives—make sure they don't forget who I am. [Laughs.] To go to work, and be able to creatively do what I do, and then come home and love on them as much as I can.

 

[For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.com. The Richard Rodgers Theatre is located at 226 West 46th Street.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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